ROCKINGHAM — Richmond County law enforcement officers have carried a torch for the Special Olympics for about 20 years, and that tradition continued on Thursday for the 50th anniversary of the games.
A dozen officers and staff from the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office and the Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice jogged about 4.6 miles from the Richmond County Animal Shelter to the Hitchcock Creek Greenway on Steele Street where they met with Special Olympics athletes for lunch.
Deputy John Edwards said he’s been running with the torch since 1998 and said it’s an important way to recognize those who are challenging themselves to improve despite limitations that are out of their control.
“We’re all are what we call ‘healthy’ … and we often take it for granted,” Edwards said of the runners on Thursday. “These athletes have special needs and they go and compete in these events and no one really knows about it.”
The route the runners took was the same as the previous year, but instead of running down the wet Hitchcock Creek trail they decided to do an extra loop through downtown before heading down Fayetteville Road and then Steele Street.
The runners pass the torch between each other as the carrier gets tired, trying to always keep it at the front of the pack. Edwards said the torch weighs between three and five pounds but, “when you’re running it feels like a brick.”
“We all do some kind of physical fitness multiple days a week so we’re able to do it,” he said. “It would be impossible to show up and run four miles without doing that.”
At one point in the run, a woman driving by beeped her horn at the runners and gave them a cash donation on the spot, which Edwards said he’d never seen before. The money raised from T-shirts and donations generated by the run goes to support the Richmond County Special Olympics, according to Edwards.
Ashley Brower, a probation and parole officer, said running the torch is a major tradition among her coworkers, and something she’s done every year since she started working at the Department of Public Safety in 2008.
“Our department is actively involved (in the run),” Brower said, adding that she has a brother-in-law who is special needs. The runners are struggling by the end of the run, and Brower said she’s not able to run the entire time.
The runners had lunch with several athletes, including Kimberly Dawn Grooms, who is competing in the state Special Olympics the weekend of June 1 and will be one of 61 athletes representing North Carolina in the national games in Seattle in July. She will compete in bowling at the state games and in bocce ball at nationals. Grooms, 49, has competed since high school, and won two gold medals and one bronze medal at the Spring Games earlier this month, but this is the first time she will compete nationally.
“I’m excited about competing, I’m going to have a fun time and meet a lot of athletes,” she said. Asked if she’s nervous about competing on the biggest stage of her time within the games, she said, “I don’t know how to deal with the pressure.”
Grooms’ mother, Helen, said she was grateful for the support of the runners and said her daughter “anxiously awaits” every event of the Special Olympics.
“The biggest thing is the accomplishments she’s made within the games,” the mother said. “She has accomplished things she would not have been able to in other organized sports.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]